“Are today’s publishers more interested in an individual novel or a trilogy? Also, when submitting a proposal for the completed first novel in a planned trilogy, is it better to focus on the first novel or give an overview of the complete trilogy? Is there an upper limit to how many books should be in a series?”
These are some excellent questions submitted by both Peter and Esther.
Stand Alone versus Series
There is no firm “rule” about this. There are too many variables to be definitive. The only thing to remember is that committing to a multi-book proposal by a publisher is a long commitment. So if you are a debut novelist and the publisher is a little skittish but still wants to publish you, they may offer only a one book deal.
Are you writing a series or a serial set of books? This is an important difference. Must they be read in order? For example, Sharon Hinck’s “Sword of Lyric”, is a multi-book fantasy epic. Each story builds on the previous. These kinds of books are often numbered on the cover somewhere to indicate their serial nature.
Or can each book stand on its own? I’m thinking of Deborah Raney’s “Chicory Inn” books. Her series is five books all set in the same town but each stands on its own. They are designed to be read in any order. The setting is the connection for the “series” not the course of events. There are other “series” where it is the character that is the connection. The main character, for example, is the continuity between books. (Can you think of examples of this?)
Many authors strive to make each story complete in and of itself even when writing a serial. In other words, the novel doesn’t have a hanging ending, with a “to be continued in my next book which comes out a year from now!”
The question is “is there more interest” in one or the other? The right answer is “it depends.” Each proposal stands on its own merit.
How Many Books Can be in a Series?
The norm is three. Why? Because it is hard for a publisher to commit to more than that. Especially when sales for a series tend to be fewer as each book is released. Book one may do okay but book two traditionally sells less, and book three less than that.
There are exceptions, of course, but generally the commitment by a publisher is for three books when evaluating a series. (But to contradict myself, this year we contracted a two book series (serial), a three book trilogy (serial), and a four book series of stand-alone “connected” books.)
Another exception is when a series takes off and each subsequent book sells more than the previous. This is what publishers hope for. When it happens, greater things can happen.
The “Left Behind” series was originally a trilogy. But sales demand was so great the trilogy eventually became 13 books before it ended, published between 1995 and 2007.
A debut author will rarely get more than a three-book commitment. So don’t pitch a four or five book series to an agent. You’ll receive the above lecture.
How Do I Pitch a Series?
Focus on the first book. Follow the guidelines for a novel proposal and make that first book amazing.
But if it is a series, say so from the beginning. Then include at least a half page synopsis of the other books in the series. That way the agent or editor gets to see your talent on full display for the opening book, but also can see where your creativity is going for the rest of the series.
Reminder: If you are a debut author have the first book completely finished.
For our experienced readers, what has been your experience?
What do you think it would take for a publisher to “break the rules”?
Thanks for the great explanation. I would like every book to stand on its own and let the reader decide if they want more. One author (Charles Martin) originally published his first two books as a series of 2, but later combined them. I thought from the beginning that they were originally one novel split into 2 for greater sales or shorter length. Another series is Patrick W. Carr’s Darkwater series (2 + a short prequel) which, when read in order, comprise a complete plot line but other novels could be added.
Many of the serials I read are police procedurals. No particular order is necessary because each novel solves a crime. Other people might wish to read them in order to follow the aging of the detectives, but I’m more interested in the process than the people.
If my novels are ever published I intend them to stand on their own with a teaser leading to the next, but since they follow the protagonist’s life, they would have to be considered a series. In my case, as in Charles Martin’s, length would be the reason to make them a series. Or, like Tom Clancy’s character, Jack Ryan, each of Jack’s career moves requires another novel. And now can you tell I’m still confused about series and serials!
Police procedurals are a perfect example of the serial type of story. (Patricia Cornwall for example).
And yet within some of them there is a chronological element from book to book. I remember picking up a thriller of some sort and reading with enjoyment the entire book. But there were a few places that referred to events in a previous story. I felt like I missed out, but I also wasn’t about to read that previous book because I knew how it was resolved by the way the current story was written.
Thus, as you can see, these labels “series” or “serial” are only there for convenience and not an absolute. I merely present them as one helpful way to distinguish between the different type of multi-book stories.
“For our experienced readers, what has been your experience? What do you think it would take for a publisher to “break the rules”?”
I’ve had some surprising twists in this arena. Books where I envisioned a series never really got the nod beyond the first book. Mostly because of the key reasons you’ve already cited (I was an unknown, risk, etc.). In other cases, I had a publisher ask about a potential series where none was really even in my mind. Moody did this with SOUL RUNNER, wondering about the “connected stories” angle. It’s often too unpredictable.
I think what it takes for publishers is the marketing angle to get them to go for a series. I also think standalone books in a connected series have a better chance, simply because trilogies and such seem so overdone. If I had any mind to pitch a series to a publisher I would have a some VERY strong characters because I think at the heart of a series, that’s the biggest driver.
I think the other low-hanging fruit for publishers is if they get a sense for how far the author has gone in thinking through the many angles for what makes a good series or not, and can articulate–or have their agent articulate–why they should take a risk. For example, I’ve found it’s easier to get them to at listen entertain a series pitch if you’ve thoroughly outlined a couple of additional books and really get the sound bites down. In other words, do your homework, author, because as Steve pointed out: books two, three, etc. don’t always fair as well.
As an author, even if I’ve indicated I have a series in mind, I don’t typically push this with the publisher. I’d run it fully past the agent first. I feel it’s always better to err on the side of the market, and just tease them that I do have things waiting in the wings. Timing is everything and if you touch on just the right content and readership, the series issue will likely come all on its own.
Ooooh. “run it by my agent.”
What a concept!
I hope everyone uses their agent to the max. It’s one of the things we do all the time, brainstorm the next project, especially if their are questions.
Sometimes we can “break the rules” because of an existing publisher relationship or recent success.
I thought you’d appreciate that, Steve. 😉
This is why I blogged earlier this year that 2017 was the year I WOULD land an agent. No matter what!
I’m really glad you addressed the topic of series, Steve. These are exactly the questions I was asking myself a year ago since I’m writing a historical fiction series. Each volume can be read independently from the others, but there are some shared characters so the reader might get an extra kick out of remembering something in a previous volume while reading the current one.
I found a publisher who is fully committed to publishing the four finished manuscripts plus the two that are plotted and partially written. The first is out and doing better than I expected, and the second will comes out in May. In fact, the publisher totally shares my enthusiasm for getting the whole series in print because the publisher is…my alter ego. We went indie to keep the rights to help missions, but if I were still seeking an agent and trad publisher, this post would be invaluable. It’s the most complete description I’ve found at any blog.
You are exactly right. An Indie author has no restrictions when it comes to series because you determine your own strategy.
Obviously my examples are more for those pitching to agents and traditional publishers.
The other day someone pitched, via email, a twelve-book series with four of them already written. And it was a serial…an epic story that would take 12 books to satisfy the storyline.
The rejection was easy since I don’t know any publisher willing to commit to 12 books on a debut author. And if they only published three, the last book would have a hanging ending in it.
Very informative, thanks Steve. It’s interesting what you say about publishers being leery of a series if you’re a debut author, because several agents and publishers I’ve researched over the past couple of years have something like this in their guidelines: “Will look at stand-alone, but series preferred.” Or “Stand-alone accepted but prefer books with series potential.”
Every time I saw that I wondered if such statements might tempt an author to try to “force” their book into a series to make it more appealing. I’ve been tempted myself. Now I’m wondering if those statements were perhaps aimed at authors with a publishing history? Not debut authors?
Good question, but hard to answer definitively. Each publisher is different..and their interests can change on Tuesday after a strategy meeting. But the online guidelines don’t change until someone remembers that what’s online doesn’t match their current acquisition strategy. That gap in information can last for months.
It’s one advantage of the agent as we are usually in tune with changes in a publisher’s direction. Some reach out to us and tell us when that happens. Others help us refine our approach in later conversations.
Martha Whiteman Rogers
This is great information, Steve. I guess my experience with a series was rather unique.
In the first contract, the publisher asked for one book. It was the first of a series, but they only wanted a first one. I made sure they were stand alone even each was set in the same town with basically the same characters. After the first one was turned in and ready for printing, they offered a contract for the next three. After the third one they asked for a prequel, and then they asked for a Christmas story with some of the characters from the series.
So I ended up with 6 books in that first series. This might not have happened if the first book hadn’t been as successful as it was. The success of the Christmas book led to a contract for another series. All of the books in my series are written so they can be stand alone. I’ve had a number of reviewers say this about them.
Publishers want to make money on their books, so it’s really up to us to make sure we have the best possible story written and submitted. The better that first book is, the better your chances, in many cases, to have a series accepted.
A perfect example of how success breeds success.
Thank you for this post, Steve. The third novel in my trilogy will be completed by the end of April. Even though each book stands alone, the overall plot continues from the previous. There’s a new developing romance with new characters in each as well. I appreciate the advice when pitching to a publisher.
This is such valuable information, Steve. Thank you! I’ve recently finished my first novel and felt two more books need to be written. (Besides, I miss my characters…is that silly?)
This helps me to know I need to work on the next two books, write a synopsis for each, and then pitch it.
I can’t thank you enough for your posts. I learn so much from them.
Thanks again! 🙂
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Steve, you asked about examples of “series” based on a character. I thought at once of Agatha Christy novels–those based on Miss Marple and those on Hercule Poirot. Then I remembered Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I haven’t thought of any more contemporary novels. OK, wait. I just did. There’s this children’s—well, middle grade—series by Angela Ruth Strong. The first book is The Water Fight Professional and the character is Joey Michaels. There is progression from one book to the next, so they are best read in order, but it’s not an absolute necessity.
Agatha Christie is a great example.
Another mystery writer is Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe mysteries. They too can be read in any order.
When in doubt I use this Fiction Database to check the order in which novels have been written:
Here is the entry for Rex Stout and his 46 Nero Wolfe mysteries
I use that database all the time to double check if I’ve missed an author’s book in their collection.
Thank you for explaining the rationale for publishers considering a book series. The commitment for all involved is an understandable concern. For a publisher to “break the rules,” I believe the author’s potential, platform, and writing style would need to be outstanding. One or more factors would need to sway a publisher in the direction of taking on the risk. Of course, that’s every writer’s dream…including mine. I’m not writing a series right now, but would certainly consider it. I have three novels and a non-fiction book in the making. Thanks, again!
Great post Mr. Laubes!
I’ve met many trilogy authors and more power to them for writing such; but, I’m am learning from Jerry Jenkins on how to write just one novel – think I’ll stick to a single – it’s a journey enough writing one.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Thanks for the great information, Steve. I remember reading Gilbert Morris’ books and felt that each one stood alone but that it was more exciting to take each one in turn. To get a publisher to break the rules, I would think that the author would need to have a very long track record with a different series.